This week b8ta is celebrating Pride. Whether as members of the LGBTQ+ community, or as their friends, we believe this is an important week, and one that calls for celebration - and a little bit of history. The following is adapted from a presentation by Nick Romero, b8ta’s West Coast District Manager, shared with the whole company on the morning of June 26.
Hello. My name is Nick Romero, and I’m gay.
It seems funny to just come out and say it, but it’s a radical statement, even today. But to keep society moving forward, we have to be able to put a face to the name.
I had a boss who was gay and pulled me aside and told me I should live my truth and be a good example no matter what other people saud. So I really took that to heart and I’ve tried to do that ever since.
As we celebrate Pride Month, and do our part to slow the spread of COVID-19 by staying home for what would traditionally be Pride weekend, I wanted to share my thoughts and experiences, and a little bit of history, with you today.
What is Pride Month?
Pride month is about celebrating diversity. It’s also about remembering the turbulent past we had to travel through to get where we are today. This is the weekend we would normally be celebrating here in SF!
At the same time, pride month is a reminder we still have so much left to do:
- LGBTQ+ youth still make up 40% of the homeless youth population in the US
- Communities within the gay community, such as the our trans community, still struggle disproportionately in pursuit of equal rights, and against discrimination
- Our relationship with our government is complicated. Even today, in 2020, there are those within our government who continue to try and move society backwards, and legalize discrimination
The great news is that, while cities like SF, LA and NYC have become safe cities for gay folk, many smaller cities are staring to get on-board with gay rights. It is truly exciting to see how this is evolving: today’s youth are much more fluid in terms of gender and sexuality, making the very core of gay rights a moving target.
Important Historical Images
The Pink Triangle and Rainbow flag are symbols of hate that have been reclaimed by the LGBTQ+ community. Once, we all knew where they came from, but as time goes by the memory of their origins fades, so let’s take a moment to remember the source of these powerful icons.
The Pink Triangle
The pink triangle was the symbol assigned to LGBTQ+ people as they were rounded up by the Nazis and delivered to concentration camps across Germany and the rest of Hitler’s Third Reich. Starting in the 1970s, it became an increasingly powerful symbol within the burgeoning ‘gay liberation’ movement around the world. It rose to prominence in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late ‘90s, when a massive pink triangle was first displayed on Twin Peaks during Pride weekend. Although initially illegal, it has become an enduring part of San Francisco’s annual calendar, featuring events and appearances by celebrities and elected officials alike, memorializing those who were cruelly cut down by the Nazi regime. It is an important part of the history of the LGBTQ+ community, and a vital reminder to all to never forget history, nor let it repeat itself.
The Rainbow Flag
From peace movements to political parties, the rainbow flag has been the symbol of dozens of historical and cultural organizations. In 1978, though, a gay artist and civil rights activist named Gilbert Baker, alongside the Grove Street gay community in San Francisco, made the first rainbow pride flag as a response to an anti-gay community that had started using the pink triangle in its historical negative, anti-LGBTQ+ way..
Originally hand-stitched and hand-dyed with eight colors — pink, red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, blue, and purple — the rainbow flag became much more than a simple reaction to homophobic behavior. Instead, it became a universal symbol for LGBTQ+ pride and began hanging from windows, flying high at demonstrations, and cropping up all across the country. As the popularity of the flag grew, its design was adapted to meet demand, and by 1979, the six-color version became the official symbol for gay pride.
The Stonewall Riots
The “holiday” of Pride is based around the date of the Stonewall Riots, long considered the beginning of the modern day gay-rights activist movement. It is generally celebrated on or around June 28th, with Pride celebration dates varying by location.
It all started in NYC in the 1960s
The 1960’s, in the LGBTQ+ community is the story of Outsiders, The Mafia and the birth of mass gay activism, all wrapped into one.
Before the mid-1960’s it was a crime just to be gay, and same-sex relations were illegal in most states and cities, including New York City. The community started to find itself through early activist groups like the Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society who mostly catered to wealthy gay clientele.
What were the Stonewall Riots?
LGBTQ+ individuals flocked to gay bars and clubs, like the Stonewall Inn, as these were places of refuge where they could express themselves openly and socialize without worry. However, the New York State Liquor Authority penalized and shut down establishments that served alcohol to known or suspected LGBTQ+ individuals, arguing that the mere gathering of homosexuals was “disorderly.”
Thanks to activists’ efforts, these regulations were overturned in 1966, and LGBTQ+ patrons could now be served alcohol. But engaging in gay behavior in public (holding hands, kissing or dancing with someone of the same sex) was still illegal, so police harassment of gay bars continued and many bars still operated without liquor licenses—in part because they were owned by the Mafia. Bars such as the Stonewall Inn and The Black Cat Bar were some of these. In fact, the Black Cat was raided in 1967 and had nearly 400 protesters assemble. This set the stage for the Stonewall uprising.
The mafia, of course, was a crime syndicate and saw profit in catering to shunned gay clientele, and by the mid-1960s, the Genovese crime family controlled most Greenwich Village gay bars. In 1966, they purchased Stonewall Inn (a “straight” bar and restaurant), cheaply renovated it, and reopened it the next year as a gay bar.
The Genovese family bribed New York’s Sixth Police Precinct to ignore the activities occurring within the club. This also allowed them to ignore basic amenities needed, such as a fire exit, running water behind the bar to wash glasses, clean toilets that didn’t routinely overflow and palatable drinks that weren’t watered down beyond recognition. What’s more, the Mafia reportedly blackmailed the club’s wealthier patrons who wanted to keep their sexuality a secret.
Community for All
Nonetheless, Stonewall Inn quickly became an important Greenwich Village institution. It was large and relatively cheap to enter. It welcomed fringe groups of the community, such as hustlers, drag queens and trans women of color, who received a bitter reception at other gay bars and clubs. It was also a nightly home for many runaways and homeless gay youths, who panhandled or shoplifted to afford the entry fee. And it was one of the few—if not the only—gay bar left that allowed dancing.
Raids were still a fact of life, but usually corrupt cops would tip off Mafia-run bars before they occurred, allowing owners to stash the alcohol (sold without a liquor license) and hide other illegal activities. In fact, the NYPD had stormed Stonewall Inn just a few days before the riot-inducing raid.
The Stonewall Riots Begin
When police raided Stonewall Inn on the morning of June 28, 1969, it came as a surprise—the bar wasn’t tipped off this time.
Armed with a warrant, police officers entered the club, roughed up patrons, and, finding bootlegged alcohol, arrested 13 people, including employees and people violating the state’s gender-appropriate clothing statute (female officers would take suspected cross-dressing patrons into the bathroom to check their sex).
Fed up with constant police harassment and social discrimination, angry patrons and neighborhood residents hung around outside of the bar rather than dispersing, becoming increasingly agitated as the events unfolded and people were aggressively manhandled. At one point, an officer hit a lesbian over the head as he forced her into the police van— she shouted to onlookers to act, inciting the crowd to begin throwing pennies, bottles, cobble stones and other objects at the police.
Within minutes, a full-blown riot involving hundreds of people began. The police, a few prisoners and a Village Voice writer barricaded themselves in the bar, which the mob attempted to set on fire after breaching the barricade repeatedly.
The fire department and a riot squad were eventually able to douse the flames, rescue those inside Stonewall, and disperse the crowd. But the protests, sometimes involving thousands of people, continued in the area for five more days, flaring up at one point after the Village Voice published its account of the riots.
Though the Stonewall uprising didn’t start the gay rights movement, it was a galvanizing force for LGBTQ+ political activism, leading to numerous gay rights organizations, including the Gay Liberation Front, Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD (formerly Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), and PFLAG (formerly Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).
On the one-year anniversary of the riots on June 28, 1970, thousands of people marched in the streets of Manhattan from the Stonewall Inn to Central Park in what was then called “Christopher Street Liberation Day,” America’s first gay pride parade. The parade’s official chant was: “Say it loud, gay is proud.”
In 2016, then-President Barack Obama designated the site of the riots—Stonewall Inn, Christopher Park, and the surrounding streets and sidewalks—a national monument in recognition of the area’s contribution to gay rights.
Gay Rights continue
Other gay rights movements have charted historic courses through the collective fabric of America, with huge events unfolding here in San Francisco in the 1970.
Harvey Milk was a small business owner, who had a camera shop in the burgeoning gay Castro district. He became the first openly gal elected official when he won a seat on the Board of Supervisors in 1977.
As a Supervisor, Milk helped spearhead the defeat of the anti-gay Briggs Initiaitve, which sought to ban the LGBTQ+ community from working in publich schools.
His notoriety, however, led to his assassination (as well as the Mayor, George Moscone) by another Supervisor, Dan White, who would go on to claim the infamous twinkie defense and secure a remarkably lenient sentence. That soft pedaling of White’s crime led to candlelit vigils, as well as the White Night riots. When he was relerased from jail, however, he committed suicide.
AIDS would take hold in the 1980’s, signaling a new wave of anti-LGBTQ+ feeling, as the pandemic was labeled the “gay plague”, leading to further stigmatization of a community that was at the same time being decimated by this cruel disease. Larry Kramer, a New York activist formed ACT-UP, which beame a vocal and angry voice of the LGBTQ+ community - while President Ronald Reagan and the federal government remained largely silent, as they saw no political gain in solving what was perceived as a ‘gay’ disease.
It’s hard to imagine today that the resistance to same sex marriage was so powerful and virulent that it reached all the way into Predident Obama’s first administration. It became a serious topic of conversation in 1993 with the Baer vs Miike case, which initially found enforcing mixed sex as a condition of marriage to be discriminatory. As has often proved to be the case, this debate raged for a full twenty years, commencing with the 1993 finding of discrimination, followed by a 1999 amendment to the State Constitution to outlaw same sex marriage, to the Hawaii Marriage Equality Acto in 2013 that legalized it.
Of course by 2003, Hawaii had fallen behind, as Massachusetts became the first state in the union to legalize same-sex marriage. On June 26, 2015, the US Supreme Court struck down all state and federal laws reserving marriage to mixed-sex couples.
There are so many reasons to be grateful for the time in which we live today. I’m grateful for my home, my family, my marriage, and my children. I am grateful that I have been able to be a small business owner - in fact, I owned and ran my own independent business from 2007 to 2011 in the very shop space in the Castro that once housed Harvey Milk’s camera shop. I have had a blessed life.
Nonetheless, identifying as a gay, Latino man is a radical act, even today. I have personally experienced homophobic persecution, even in CA, even in SF. I have been beaten and harassed for being gay. I have watched dear friends die of AIDS and have lived in a time where everyone, including our government told me that we deserved it just for being gay. I have spent part of my life being closeted, fearful of what would happen if my employer knew I was gay. We live in a wonderful time, but there is still work to do.
For myself, I have reclaimed my identity as a gay man and I’m proud of it!
Pride will always be important to me because I stand on the shoulders of all those who came before me.